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U.S. was more focused on al-Qaeda's plans abroad than for homeland, report on airline bomb plot finds

By Karen DeYoung and Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 8, 2010; A01

By concentrating on the strategic threat posed by the al-Qaeda affiliate in Yemen and its plans for attacking U.S. targets there, U.S. intelligence agencies failed to focus on the group's preparations for a direct strike in this country, a White House review of the Dec. 25 attempted airline bombing has concluded.

That lapse, along with insufficient attention to separate warnings that a specific person -- Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab -- may have been recruited by extremists in Yemen, led to a breakdown in systems designed to "connect the dots" about an imminent threat to the homeland, President Obama said Thursday in announcing the findings.

"The U.S. government had the information . . . to potentially uncover this plot and disrupt the attack," he said. "Rather than a failure to collect or share intelligence, this was a failure to connect and understand the intelligence that we already had."

In addition to changes in airline watch lists and improved airport screening, which could have detected the explosives Abdulmutallab was allegedly carrying, Obama directed that the intelligence community ensure that every threat is fully analyzed and aggressively followed, "not just most of the time but all of the time."

He also ordered more rapid and widespread distribution of all intelligence reports, "especially those involving potential threats to the United States," and improvements in the way analysts process "vast universes of intelligence."

Assigning responsibility to top intelligence and homeland security officials for establishing accountability within their agencies, Obama said he is "less interested in passing out blame than I am in learning from and correcting these mistakes."

"Ultimately," he said, "the buck stops with me . . . and when the system fails, it is my responsibility."

But the six-page report released by the White House, a declassified version of the investigation compiled by counterterrorism chief John O. Brennan over the past two weeks, singled out the National Counterterrorism Center and the CIA. Although each had the responsibility and ability to do so, the report said, each failed to apply to Yemen-based al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) "the full range of analytic tools and expertise that [they use] in tracking other plots aimed at the U.S. homeland."

The NCTC was created after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to analyze terrorism-related intelligence from across the government, while the CIA retains additional responsibility for counterterrorism analysis. "The intentional redundancy in the system should have added an additional layer of protection in uncovering a plot like the failed attack on December 25," the report said.

In addition to the failure of those agencies to link information relating to the operation, it said, "analytic focus during December was on the imminent AQAP attacks on Americans and American interests in Yemen, and on supporting CT [counterterrorism] efforts in Yemen."

"All of their activities we were focused on were happening in Yemen," Brennan said in a White House briefing after Obama spoke. "There was a drumbeat of intelligence on trying to get individuals to carry out attacks. . . . In hindsight, we saw the plot developing, but at the time we did not know they were talking about sending Mr. Abdulmutallab to the United States."

Brennan, a former senior CIA official, praised the intelligence community for "an outstanding and stellar job in protecting this homeland." But "it was in this one instance that we did not rise to that same level of competence and success." He said he had told Obama on Thursday that "I let him down. . . . I told him I will do better and we will do better as a team."

He also deflected potential criticism of NCTC Director Michael E. Leiter, who the New York Daily News reported Thursday had spent much of the post-Christmas crisis period away from Washington on a ski vacation. Leiter, who had scheduled a leave to spend time with his son, "asked me whether or not he should cancel. . . . I was the one who told him he should go," Brennan said, adding that they were "in constant contact with each other."

In a memo to department and agency heads outlining "corrective actions," Obama ordered Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair to "immediately reaffirm and clarify roles and responsibilities" of counterterrorism agencies "in synchronizing, correlating and analyzing all sources of intelligence related to terrorism."

In a letter sent to the intelligence community Thursday night, Blair acknowledged that "we had strategic intelligence that al-Qaeda in the Arab [sic] Peninsula had the intention of taking action against the United States." But, he wrote, we did not direct more resources against AQAP, nor insist that the watchlisting criteria be adjusted." Analysts "who were working hard on immediate threats to Americans in Yemen did not understand the fragments of intelligence on what turned out later to be Mr. Abdulmutallab."

The State Department, which failed to determine that Abdulmutallab had a valid U.S. entry visa after his father visited the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria to express concern about his son's radicalization in Yemen, was ordered to strengthen its procedures for issuing and revoking visas, while the FBI was directed to review its watch-list procedures, especially the airline "no-fly" list.

The CIA, which had compiled a biographical study of Abdulmutallab after his father's embassy visit but never formally disseminated it across the intelligence community, was instructed to "issue guidance aimed at ensuring the timely distribution of intelligence reports."

CIA spokesman George Little said that the agency had "collected and shared information about Abdulmutallab with other agencies" but "had taken a close look at how we can do even more."

On Tuesday, Little said, CIA Director Leon Panetta had ordered the agency to formally disseminate information on terrorism suspects within 48 hours, expand name traces and review information on individuals from "countries of concern" to see whether it should recommend changes in their watch-list status and "increase the number of analysts focused on Yemen and Africa."

Obama's memo instructed the National Security Agency, whose electronic intercepts from Yemen last fall included references to an anti-U.S. plot and an unnamed Nigerian, to implement a training course to increase awareness among its analysts of the government's watch-listing procedures.

The NCTC, which was accused of devoting insufficient analytical firepower to AQAP threats against the U.S. homeland, was told to "establish and resource appropriately a process to prioritize and to pursue thoroughly and exhaustively terrorism threat threads."

Obama, Brennan and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, who also spoke after the president's address, said Abdulmutallab is a challenging new type of al-Qaeda recruit. "It is clear that al-Qaeda increasingly seeks to recruit individuals without known terrorist affiliations not just in the Middle East but in Africa and other places to do their bidding," Obama said, adding that he had "directed my national security team to develop a strategy that addresses the unique challenges posed by lone recruits."

Congressional Republicans welcomed the public release of the White House report, but some said they are not convinced that the administration will take the steps needed to close gaps in intelligence and security. Rep. Peter Hoekstra (Mich.), the senior Republican on the House intelligence committee, said the administration failed to respond aggressively to problems that were exposed in November's shootings at Fort Hood, Tex.

Hoekstra's counterpart on the Senate intelligence panel, Sen. Christopher S. Bond (Mo.), said he was puzzled by Obama's contention that all the problems leading up to the failed Christmas attack had been identified. "Our committee is still waiting for the administration to provide basic answers to basic questions," he said. Several hearings on the incident and intelligence shortfalls have been scheduled for this month.

Staff writer Joby Warrick contributed to this report.

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